by Judith Fein (Santa Fe, NM)
When I was 10 years old, while other girls were playing with dolls, I was obsessed with the shtetl, or village, my grandmother came from. I begged my parents to take me to Brooklyn, so I could sit next to her, feel the softness of her skin, and ask her about her village in Russia.
My grandmother was not forthcoming. Nor did she know exactly where her shtetl was located because it was an isolated village, and the only time she ventured any real distance from it was to come to the United States when she was 17.
“Grandma, where do you come from?” I would ask.
“What was it like?”
The less she said, the more my imagination went wild, conjuring up images of a dark, mysterious place in Russia with sinewy alleys. I was awed that my grandmother, the woman who was my mother’s mother and called me “mamaleh,” lived in such a place and knew its secrets.
“Please, Gram, tell me.”
“It’s better to forget about it.”
She never spontaneously talked about Minkowitz, and I never gave up questioning her or trying to find out about her life before she came to America, before I knew her. Who was she before she was my grandmother?
“Tell me what you ate there, Gram.”
“Where did you buy it?”
“There was a market once a week, on Tuesdays. We had beans, potatoes, beets, corn….” her voice trailed off. She went into the kitchen to stir the chicken soup, and I watched the yellow chicken legs float to the surface and then disappear.
“Are you hungry, mamaleh?” she asked.
When I nodded, she opened the refrigerator and took out a jar full of schmaltz—rendered chicken fat—that was speckled with burnt onions. She spread half an inch of schmaltz on a piece of rye bread, and handed it to me.
“Did you eat schmaltz in Minkowitz?”
She nodded yes. I took a huge bite of bread, relishing the schmaltz, because it linked me to my grandmother’s village.
I was never very interested in religion, but I loved everything about my grandmother’s culture: the Yiddish newspaper that was folded up on an overstuffed, upholstered armchair in the living room; the front parlor, where I slept, and which looked out over the street; the pantry closet which smelled vaguely from matza. Most of all, I loved that she came from Minkowitz. It sounded so exotic. It was somewhere across the ocean, in a vast country called Russia. She wasn’t born in America, like I was. She came from a mysterious place and she was a foreigner with secrets. I felt about her the way the ancients must have felt about travelers who arrived in their midst; they wanted to hear stories, to learn about how people lived in faraway lands. The slightest details that my grandmother divulged about Minkowitz became indelibly imprinted on my brain.
“Gram, did you go to school?”
“Why not, Gram?”
“We weren’t allowed to.”
“Why couldn’t you go to school?”
I was like a little prosecuting attorney, and my grandmother softened on the witness stand. She got a faraway look in her eyes.
“I stood at the bottom of the hill, looking up at the school where the Russian girls studied. They wore blue uniforms. I wanted to be educated like them.”
“But you couldn’t….?”
She shook her head no. I wrote down everything she told me, and thought about it until the next time I saw her. Then I started asking questions again.
“If you didn’t go to school, what did you do all day in Minkowitz?”
“When I was 10 years old, like you are now, I was working.”
“What kind of work?”
“I dried tobacco leaves in the field with the women.”
I had never seen a tobacco leaf. Why did they need to be dried? I wrote down what my grandmother told me, and mulled it over until our next conversation. My mother said I was making my grandmother crazy. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I loved my grandmother. I was just asking her about her childhood.
“Tell me about your house, Gram. What did it look like?”
“The floor was made from goat dreck.”
Goat shit for a floor. Were there clumps of dung? Who spread them out? Did they stink? What happened if you walked on the floor with bare feet? I clung to each tidbit, marinating it in my mind and imagination, repeating it to myself as though my life depended upon my remembering it.
On one visit, I was playing with cans of food in my grandmother’s hall closet, stacking them, and unstacking them, using them like big tin Legos. She walked by and patted me affectionately on the shoulder.
“Where in Russia was Minkowitz, Gram? Do you know the name of the biggest city in the area?”
“Oy. Always Minkowitz. The biggest city was Kamenetz Podolsk.”
Again, I wrote down every word she said. I thought I was getting ancestral gems, but later, when I looked at the content, it was paltry indeed. No stories. No slice of life anecdotes. Just six facts about my grandmother’s life in Minkowitz. That was it. The weekly market was on Tuesday. When she was 10 years old, she dried tobacco leaves with the women. She lived at the bottom of a hill. The Russian girls went to school on top of the hill. The floor of the house was made of goat dung. Kamenetz Podolsk was the big town. I repeated the scant facts over and over, clinging to them, imagining what they looked like, felt like, smelled like. It was so vivid that I felt as though I had lived in Minkowitz too.
I knew that in Minkowitz they spoke Yiddish. I started trying to imitate the sounds of the language since I couldn’t speak it. Instead, I invented a sort of fake Yiddish. I would call my grandmother, and, when she answered the phone, I would cheerfully ask, “Grandma, vus habastups-du?”
“Judie,” she would say sadly, “I don’t understand your Eedish.” That’s how she pronounced it: “Eedish.”
The next time I called, I greeted her with the bogus, “Grandma, hoison boisin galempt.”
“Judie, I’m sorry. I just can’t understand your Eedish.”
When I was 19, bedridden with mononucleosis and hepatitis, I didn’t have the energy to roll over or kick the covers off when it got too hot. My grandmother got on a train in Brooklyn, which was unusual for her, and came to see me in Queens. She sat next to my bed, on a folding chair, and informed me that she finally figured out why she didn’t understand my Yiddish. “Because you go to college and you speak a very educated Eedish.” If I had had the energy, I would have leapt out of bed and hugged her.